The Vietnamese are often called the "Italians of Asia", perhaps due to their penchant for Vespa mopeds and labels. Today, with a booming economy, Vietnam may, surprisingly, be ripe for the allure of the Orb Mark.
While it may not be the most obvious emerging market for Harris Tweed, Vietnam has, since the 1990s, a burgeoning wealthy middle class with significant disposable income they like to spend on luxury goods and status symbols to signal their success.
The "cold" north
Unlike popular perceptions of Vietnam as a land of sweaty jungles as framed by so many war movies, the north has four distinct seasons, with winter temperatures being described locally as "cold". Even in the tropical south, last November one of the leading news websites described overnight temperatures of 19 degrees in Ho Chi Minh City as "frigid". Technically, this would be "taps aff" weather in Scotland.
The local definition of cold in Hanoi, as I can attest after living here for the past four years, is somewhat different from the Outer Hebrides. Here, a cold day is when the thermometer heads south of 25 degrees. If I had a fiver for every time I was asked, "Are you not cold?" while wearing shorts and a T-shirt, I would be a Vietnamese Dong millionaire many times over. Reach day time temperatures of 19C and Hanoians are wearing up to three layers and a big jacket that wouldn't look out of place on a Polar expedition.
Leading stylist and Hanoi fashion expert, Hoang Minh Chau, is confident there is potential for seasonal lightweight Harris Tweed in the northern region, particularly Hanoi, the capital, the port city of Hai Phong. Indeed, some of the capital's top fashion tailors have already been experimenting with the Clò-Mòr, especially for men's suits.
Niche for Harris Tweed
In recent years, Hoang, who has worked in marketing and PR for brands such as Valentino and Moschino, has detected a major shift in attitudes away from the pursuit of designer labels towards garments made of top-end high-quality fabric, a niche that firmly accommodates Harris Tweed.
"There could be potential for Harris Tweed because many Vietnamese are now more conscious about how they look. There are many people who are into fashion as a way to elevate their status. I think it is happening everywhere in Asia that people are more willing to spend upscale designer, quality clothing," says Hoang.
Price would be an issue, so the potential for Harris Tweed entering the Vietnamese market would most likely initially be on a limited scale for winter collections, she points out. Interest at the moment is fledgling but maybe in three to five years' time, there will be much greater potential, especially if there is the possibility to buy Harris Tweed collectively in bulk.
"It is also worth noting that in the last one or two years, Vietnamese people have been purchasing Jo Malone, a niche British perfume brand, so there's a certain trend to use something less commercial, which has a niche identity and a more sophisticated fashion insider feel to the brand. So maybe, one day, Harris Tweed can be the next trend," adds Hoang.
"Harris Tweed is very niche and has a very, very British heritage. If the British Council could step in and host a fashion show, talks at fashion colleges, I feel it could work. The British Council has already been doing certain programmes and initiatives to support the fashion industry in Vietnam and also bringing more awareness about British fashion and studying fashion in Britain.”
Drawing on her extensive marketing experience with some of Europe's top labels, Ms Hoang recommends that any major Harris Tweed marketing initiative should firmly be a collaborative effort between the brand and the British Council in Vietnam in order to give any launch the necessary scale and prestige required to gain significant traction, as well as being a nod to the history of British tailoring.
"I think what drives Vietnamese people these days is a sense of status. They are keen on foreign, international quality stuff not only from Britain but also Japan, Korea, Italy, and France because it is all associated with culture, status and the prestige of being able to afford them," she adds.
Harris Tweed would not be an overnight success, there would be a long lead-in time to build awareness and gain popularity. If momentum could be built there would be nothing to prevent Harris Tweed from being "the next big thing" in Vietnam's fashion world.
Plans for Vietnam
The potential in Vietnam has certainly taken the interest of the Harris Tweed Authority. Chief Executive, Lorna Macaulay told EVENTS that Vietnam is already a key destination for the manufacture of finished Harris Tweed products, which are then largely exported back to the UK, Europe, and Japan.
Until now, though, Harris Tweed’s marketing efforts for the cloth have been focused on China, Vietnam's giant neighbour where there is a tremendous opportunity.
Says Ms Macaulay: "Our focus here at the Harris Tweed Authority is to ensure our portfolio of trademarks is as robust and extensive as possible to protect our industry in China. Likewise, we are seeing a rise in the number of enquiries from Taiwan and Malaysia. South Korea is a strong market and Japan, of course, continues to be a very important premium market for our industry."
Vietnam is not being discounted, and the Harris Tweed Authority would be happy to explore an awareness event to introduce the Harris Tweed story to Hanoi and Vietnam more generally.
Sales opportunities in Vietnam and other emerging markets in the Far East are firmly on their radar and have been for some time, Harris Tweed Hebrides confirmed. The company has an extensive established sales network in South East Asia, including showrooms in Shanghai and Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan and exhibits widely at a number of international trade fairs in these key locations.
Harris Tweed Hebrides say they are committed to exploring and investing in new sales opportunities in order to maximise the opportunities for Harris Tweed fabric in locations like Vietnam where economies are growing, and are actively expanding their portfolio of marketplaces in the east including Russia and across mainland China.